national newsletter

The case for cutting class (sizes)

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country.

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The big story

Debates over how — and how aggressively — to pursue policies that integrate schools by race and class are continuing across the country. The latest battleground is New York City, where the mayor and school chancellor have staked out a newly aggressive stance on school integration, introducing a plan to get more black and Hispanic students into some of the city’s elite high schools.

That’s why we dug into a recent study that highlights a simple, concrete policy that could help catalyze integration efforts: lowering class sizes.

What does class size have to do with integration? Well, a study of California’s massive efforts to slash class sizes in the late ‘90s finds that the effort drew tens of thousands of students from private schools into the public system. Because those students were disproportionately white and affluent, it’s a shift that might make integration efforts easier. (The study showed that test scores rose due to the efforts, too.)

That’s all good news, though it’s not clear how widely the results apply, or to what extent lower class sizes can combat how racism and negative beliefs about local schools, particularly in segregated areas. Class size reductions are also an expensive reform that requires more teachers, more space, and — if the policy does draw students from private schools — more public dollars to be spent on education in general.

Here’s the full story.

Local stories to watch

Matt’s research round-up

  • A teacher prep bright spot: UTeach, a program that started in Texas to prepare math and science majors to teach with a streamlined undergraduate program, has spread to 22 states. A new study suggests that, at least in Texas, the program is working: it seemed to draw more people into teaching and the teachers were then more effective at raising student test scores. The results are striking because — as we’ve covered before — there’s not a whole lot of research on how to improve teacher training.
  • Schools with failing grades retain more teachers in New York City. That’s the surprising finding of a recent study focused on the controversial policy of giving schools a letter grade. In NYC, the since-cancelled policy boosted test scores in low-rated schools and led to greater rates of teacher retention compared to similar schools that scored one grade higher. This goes against past research and conventional wisdom. The researcher suggests that school principals made genuine improvement that encouraged teachers to stay.
  • Was the 30 million word gap debunked? A recent study called into question the idea that low-income students hear millions fewer words in early childhood than affluent kids. NPR looked carefully at the widely cited 1992 research, pointing out that it had a very small sample size and that other research had pointed to a much smaller word gap. The piece also discusses push back from scholars on the idea of a “gap” to begin with — that this language implicitly blames low-income students and parents. University of Virginia Professor Daniel Willingham wrote a blog post pointing to a number of other studies pointing to a word disparity. “As to whether the gap is 30 million or some other figure … I don’t know, maybe somebody thought the absolute value mattered. I doubt any psychologists did,” he said.

Names to note

Dr. Mayme Hostetter is the new president of Relay Graduate School of Education.

Democrat Gavin Newsom will face Republican John Cox in the race to become California’s next governor. It’s a big setback for charter school advocates who spent millions supporting former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor who is backed by teachers unions, is the heavy favorite in the blue state.

Marshall Tuck, who is backed by charter advocates, and Tony Thurmond, who is supported by teachers union, will advance to the general election for California schools chief; this race has already drawn big money from both sides.

DeVos watch

The education secretary got into an odd back-and-forth with Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy while testifying before a Congressional subcommittee on Tuesday. Murphy asked DeVos to clarify remarks she made last week implying that schools could decide to call ICE on undocumented students. She repeatedly avoided directly answering Murphy’s question before landing on, “I don’t think they can.”

She also told lawmakers that the school safety commission she’s chairing in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida won’t look at guns. That commission visited a Maryland elementary school to highlight Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a strategy designed to support students and improve student behavior.

Remember when DeVos, along with a number of cabinet officials, put out a statement praising Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate change agreement last year? It raised eyebrows because it was beyond the usual scope of the education secretary. But new emails, obtained by the energy news site E&E, help explain it: the White House instructed all agencies to put out statements of support — “no exceptions.” The emails also suggest that DeVos’s did not approve or see the statement before it went out under her name.

DeVos is headed to Europe today for about a week and a half to look at vocational education and school choice systems in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

What we’re reading

  • Principals brought in to turn around struggling New York City schools have been derailed by investigations spurred by angry staffers. New York Times
  • Michael Bloomberg is pledging more money to prepare students for college. Education Week
  • More local teachers unions are breaking off from their national affiliates, a trend that could accelerate after the Janus ruling. The 74
  • Why research doesn’t always tell you “what works.” Education Week
  • Camden’s adoption of a common enrollment system for districts and charter schools draws praise, criticism. Philadelphia Inquirer
  • More schools in New Orleans are moving to online learning, with the encouragement of (and money from) influential philanthropies. Hechinger Report
  • In key gubernatorial races, Democrats are divided on education, reports the AP. (Chalkbeat noted this phenomenon last year.)

Last week we noted a new seminar being offered to train leaders of districts that have adopted the “portfolio model” for schools. That’s taking place at the University of Colorado at Denver, not the University of Denver.

(Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)